Towards remote working

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Growth
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Stages of remoteness

In the last article I wrote about how flexibility in the time and location of work is the greatest perk that you can give your staff. It costs pretty much nothing to the company, yet the life benefits are numerous.

Naturally, flexibility should be given within bounds that work for both yourself and your staff.

Senior, self-directed staff can probably work entirely to their own schedule and location, whereas less experienced staff require more planning to ensure that they are getting the mentorship and guidance that they need in the form in which they prefer (e.g. in-person pair programming versus remote screen sharing).

Conversations about flexible working, which incorporates frequent working from home, can lead into conversations about permanent remote working. This is a natural progression, but it is one that starts to bring into question the company’s work culture and processes. It’s not as easy to change an on-site company into a more remote friendly company as you may think.

To begin with, the term remote working can mean different things to different people, so I’ve attempted to define different stages that a company can exist in with regards to the location of their employees:

  1. On-site only. This is a traditional company where all of the work is done on-site, requiring employees to be in the building within their contracted hours. People get in and go home at about the same time. There may be staff taking occasional days to work from home, but it is not seen as a regular occurrence; typically it is for a special reason such as a medical appointment or a parents afternoon at school.
  2. Flexible working. This is an evolution of on-site working where both the beginning and end of the day are more loosely defined, perhaps with a reduced set of core hours specified. Employees may regularly work from home on their terms as part of their standard working week, but are still culturally attached to their physical office hub, and are expected to be there for a reasonable amount of time during the week.
  3. Remote friendly. This stage means that the company is willing to have staff that work completely remotely. Those staff could be anywhere in the world. The company has the culture and tools in place so that remote staff feel as part of the team as possible. However, most staff still are physically present in the offices a majority of the time.
  4. Remote only. The company has no physical offices, aside from perhaps some co-working spaces in cities that contain a lot of its staff. Culture, process and tools require digital communication over physical communication.

It is common for a company to progress from stage 1 through to stage 3 as they grow, often fueled by difficulty hiring talented staff solely in the cities in which they have offices. It can also occur when highly valued staff change location for personal reasons, forcing the company to progress their ways of working.

However – and I would love to be proved wrong – I have heard very little of established companies of a reasonable size progressing fully to the fourth stage. Being a remote only company is a serious whole-company cultural decision; one that involves closing offices and potentially alienating many people who enjoy being physically present with their colleagues.

What do the people want?

Here’s a poll from the Product Hunt CEO, Ryan Hoover.

Recently, a number of people have read the excellent It Doesn’t Have To Be Crazy At Work, which describes conditions at Basecamp, a company creating eponymous project management software. Basecamp is a remote only company; albeit with one “library” office for focus. Most employees work from home or from co-working spaces.

You may find that your staff will point to this as to where your company should be going. They will say it is the future. Perhaps it is, but building the cultural scaffolding for being remote only takes a lot of time, and perhaps may not even happen. It’s also worth remembering that not everyone will want it to happen.

Numerous articles and threads exist on the darker side of remote only working:

Remote working is not for everybody. It takes a particular type of person to thrive in an environment where they never see their colleagues physically.  

I believe that working along points 1 to 3 on the scale above towards being remote friendly is a much better path to take for existing companies.

Towards remote friendly working

Moving along the path from being an on-site only company to remote friendly means facing numerous technological and cultural issues. However, I believe that facing these issues head on benefit everyone, and strengthen a company growing globally.

As an example, I’ve compiled a list of some of them. It is by no means extensive, but it should hopefully highlight some of those issues:

  • The company must ensure that information is broadcast regularly and in an archival way, such as email, so that nobody misses out on important updates because of their location.
  • The company needs to ensure that product development can happen anywhere in the world and is not tied to office networking or firewalls, and that anyone can get up and running easily. This requires good documentation, automation, and most importantly, people available to help round the clock.
  • Good text chat and video call systems need to be the norm and staff must practice being inclusive to remote participants both in meetings and in informal discussions.
  • Culturally the company must embrace trust of its employees despite decreasing visibility of those staff, creating better ways of measuring progress than bottoms-on-seats for a set number of hours a day in the office.
  • By incorporating people on different timezones, companies automatically face the challenges of working around flexitime individuals. When are the windows in the day in which teams can collaborate in real time? Do expectations need to be changed as to the responsiveness of staff via DM and email? Is it acceptable that decisions take longer?

Advice to existing on-site companies

My advice would be to work towards being remote friendly. Even if only 1% of staff end up being remote, there are plentiful benefits for everyone by being able to support remote staff: better communication processes, a demonstrable move towards flexible working, more reliable development environments, slower and more considered decisions, and so on.

If your company is reluctant to change, then the previous article outlined a way of running a trial of flexible working within a team that could demonstrate that it can contribute greatly to employee productivity and happiness.

I’d love to hear how it goes.

4 Comments

    • Thanks for the comment!

      Remote and asynchronous is a hard thing to achieve. Do you think it becomes too hard for non-engineering staff at that point? Or just much more difficult due to the cultural norms in other parts of the business?

      • I think asynchronous is a huge cultural shift for all parts of an org, engineer or not. Because it’s not a technical change (as IMHO remote is these days) but a social one. As it effectively limits communication to be non-interactive. From what I gathered, talking to folks that do it, that mostly means writing/drawing. Which I personally think is only half of what you need to do, to create shared understanding of something.

        One positive thing I imagine is that by making interactive communication very expensive to initiate, people gain way longer stretches of uninterrupted time. Which especially for creative work would be a blessing. But I don’t really have any experience with working asynchronous (except free software community hacking in that setting), especially not in an asynchronous-first org.

        I imagine you need to hire people that can cope with this well and have a knack for it, like you stated that remote is not for everyone. Which makes me wonder how deep this talent pond is…

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